By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA, March 1 (Reuters) - Security forces detained dozens of local activists and blocked foreign observers, including the chief U.S. envoy to Havana, from attending the trial on Monday of four dissidents in the biggest case of its kind in years.
``It's obvious the system can't stand the scrutiny, even from several blocks away. It's not a very good day for Cuban justice,'' said senior U.S. diplomat Michael Kozak after police escorted him away from the area near the Havana Tribunal in the capital's Marianao district. Kozak heads the U.S. Interests Section in Cuba.
Cuban rights' groups said that by early afternoon, 39 opposition activists and dissident journalists had been detained, with another 37 held in their homes, in a roundup that began on Friday and continued through the weekend.
The detentions appeared to be a temporary measure to prevent activists from attending the start of the trial of the so-called ``Group of Four.''
Vladimiro Roca, 56, a former fighter pilot in Castro's Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR) and the son of deceased Cuban communist hero Blas Roca, economist Marta Beatriz Roque, 53, academic Felix Bonne, 59, and lawyer Rene Gomez Manzano, 55, all have been jailed for the past 19 months.
The four angered the government in 1996 and 1997 with open criticism of the ruling Communist Party and calls for reforms.
They are accused jointly of ``other acts against the security of the state in relation with a crime of sedition,'' according to a charge sheet obtained by Reuters.
They are accused of trying to disrupt elections, threatening foreign investors, lying about the economy, receiving support from the U.S. Interests' Section, and having links with alleged anti-Castro groups in the United States.
Havana denies it holds prisoners of conscience and labels the four, as it does other opposition figures, ``counter- revolutionary'' criminals backed by its foreign enemies.
While there was no information on what was going on inside the court, dissident sources reported a wave of detentions going on around Havana.
``Raul left the house a while back, and now he's disappeared. I assume they've taken him,'' said Blanca Reyes, wife of dissident poet and journalist Raul Rivero, who heads the largest independent news agency, Cuba Press. That organisation operates without authorisation outside the state-controlled media.
There was no official confirmation of the detentions, but some dissident sources termed the roundup the most significant operation of its kind since the 1996 break-up of a nascent organisation, Concilio Cubano. That organisation tried to unite opposition groups.
Also, there was speculation that some of those held could be charged under draconian new anti-subversion legislation Cuba passed earlier in February. ``We hope these lamentable detentions are just temporary ... I wish they could just resolve this in a civilised manner,'' said Gerardo Sanchez, of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.
Kozak and other diplomats from Switzerland, South Africa, Spain, Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, Canada, Sweden, Japan and Britain, together with some 20 foreign reporters, began arriving for the trial at around 7 a.m. local time (1200 GMT).
But they were prevented from getting near the court by police, who cordoned off streets and watched them carefully.
Asked by Kozak on whose orders observers were being moved, a security official told him: ``Revolutionary authorities.'' Kozak's verbal protest was then answered by: ``That doesn't interest me.''
``I'm here simply to show some solidarity with good people working for change,'' Kozak told reporters.
Family members of the four defendants were allowed into the trial and those entering the court said they were praying for acquittal. ``My hope is to take Vladimiro home with me when I leave here,'' said Magaly de Armas, wife of Vladimiro Roca, as she entered. ``Let justice be done, and for me justice is synonymous with freedom.''
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited